September 9, 2017 at 5:38 PM
NEW YORK — In the hallway just off the court Friday night, with the U.S. Open and the Grand Slam tennis season tilting into their last fumes, Toni Nadal took a look at that season. The longtime coach and uncle of Rafael Nadal spoke, as usual, graciously and undramatically.
"It's easy to describe it," he said of a season in which his nephew has resumed his status as an utmost horror to those opposite him. "He has played really good during the season and" — a quick laugh here, as if stating the obvious — "he played really well at Roland Garros, was his best.
"And I know [Novak] Djokovic is out, [Andy] Murray is out, [Milos] Raonic is out, [Kei] Nishikori, [Stanislas] Wawrinka. I know it's a little easier. I know. But I think his level during this year was very good, was very good in Australia. I think in Australia he can win the tournament, and Roland Garros he has played really good, Monte Carlo he has played well, Barcelona and Madrid."
On the verge of a fourth U.S. Open final and 23rd Grand Slam final Sunday, against Kevin Anderson, Rafael Nadal is so famous by now that any mini-drought becomes something both scrutinized and minor. The world played 10 tennis Grand Slams between the 2014 French Open and the end of 2016, and Nadal didn't win any of them, reaching zero finals, zero semifinals, two quarterfinals and two other fourth rounds, a patch you would call atypical.
Analysts wondered whether stomping around playing tennis like a football linebacker all those years might have called for its bill by age 31. Injury wrought four missed Grand Slams since 2012, including 2016 Wimbledon. At the same time, when Nadal resumed tiptop prowess this year after closing down 2016 early last October and he reached the Australian Open final and won the French Open, it still made sense. When a questioner asked Friday about Nadal's "tough year" last year, Nadal briefly grimaced at the words.
"I tell you," he said, "for me what is more important, more than win Slams, is be happy. I am happy if I am healthy and happy, if I feel competitive in the most of the weeks that I am playing, and that's what happened this year."
It left him as, somehow, the last titan standing in a year that shed them alarmingly. Of the big five who have treated this decade as a startling hegemony, winning all but one of the 31 Grand Slams, three missed this U.S. Open, while Roger Federer was knocked out in the quarterfinals without much regret, claiming he lacked the health and the mustard to proceed as a viable entry. All of that left room for a gutted-out bottom half of the draw and for one of the masses of underlings to grab himself a moment.
It became Anderson, born two weeks before Nadal in May 1986, and it became the fruition of a fine climb for a decent man. The 6-foot-8 booming server hails from South Africa, a country with a good tennis background but one uncelebrated enough that Anderson said Friday, "People in my country love tennis, actually." His 34th Grand Slam entry had yielded both his first semifinal and his first final. He had beaten three top 40 players — Paolo Lorenzi, Sam Querrey and Pablo Carreno Busta — and he felt amazed at reaching the peak of a U.S.-based journey.
He arrived as an uncommonly skinny 18-year-old in Champaign, Ill., in January 2005 to play for the University of Illinois. He brought along a serve that was already "big," according to Brad Dancer, Anderson's assistant and head coach at Illinois, and has reached 135 mph here at the U.S. Open. Anderson arrived "voracious" to "suck the marrow out of life," ready to "milk the experience for all it's worth," Dancer said, and he also "ate the dorms out of all their food" to gain 35 pounds.
"A great person," Dancer said. "Great heart. I think one of the reasons he fit very well in Champaign was his blue-collar work ethic." Competitive. A great runner (formerly an 800-meter competitor). Anderson struggled sometimes with the pressure of team play, but he memorably won a decisive match in the fourth round as Illinois stormed to the NCAA final.
Then he joined the ATP Tour, and "a whole group of guys, Kevin being one of them, and you hate to say it, but you didn't pick a great time" to be born, Dancer said, laughing. On Sunday, though, Anderson will find himself a rare experience, across from one of those who made his time of birth inconvenient.